In 2016, Paulo Fonseca took on the somewhat daunting challenge of replacing legendary Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu at Shakhtar Donetsk.
Now in his third season in Ukraine, the former Porto boss continues to enjoy overwhelming success which has led him to become one of the most coveted young managers in Europe.
Lucescu stepped down in May 2016 after twelve years in charge at the Donbass Arena, leaving his post having won eight Ukrainian Premier League titles and a UEFA Cup during a trophy-laden stint. For Fonseca, the task of replacing the veteran coach, who had finished runner-up in his final season, was made even more challenging by political problems affecting the city.
Fonseca arrived from Sporting Braga unable to speak the language and compromised by an inability to sign new players. Shakhtar soon crashed out of the Champions League at the Qualification Round, leaving Fonseca battling to make a success of a squad with little investment and several out of form players.
Since then, the impact made by the Mozambique-born coach has been overwhelmingly positive. Fonseca has won the Ukrainian Premier League and Ukrainian Cup in both seasons with the club, restoring Shakhtar as the dominant force in the country, and showing excellent coaching skills to develop previously underperforming players such as Bernard, who was recently sold to Everton.
Speaking at the Elite Club Coaches Forum in Nyon, Fonseca was asked to describe his football philosophy. "I don’t know if I can call that my philosophy, what I can say is that I have very clear intentions that are visible in my game,” he said. “Obviously, these intentions are about having the ball, taking the initiative and being an offensive team. These are the aspects that define my game and my aim in games.
“What I always want to see from my players is courage, courage to develop our game. It’s not always easy because it is difficult for a player to develop this game. The thing that I want them to have is the courage to take the initiative, to play an offensive game and to always have the ball. That is what I want from my players and team. They know that this type of game values that a lot, that’s why they naturally accept it. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to have always had very brave players.”
As a player, Fonseca had a brief spell at Porto in 1995, but it was an otherwise undistinguished playing career, which ended at the age of 32 with Estrela da Amadora. For the former defender, his attention had already turned to coaching by the time he had decided to hang up his boots with no major honours.
“I confess that I wasn’t very motivated to keep playing. I was more motivated and had been preparing myself to become a coach. I had a great challenge which was to try to be better as a coach than I had been as a player. I confess that my passion for my profession is huge. I love my profession, my everyday life, I love each and every minute of my job, and this motivates me a great deal.”
One of Fonseca’s biggest achievements with Shakhtar so far was qualification from last season's Champions League group phase. Having found themselves in a tough group alongside Manchester City, coached by Pep Guardiola, as well as Maurizio Sarri's Napoli and Dutch giants Feyenoord, the Ukrainian side managed to finish second in the group, enjoying wins over City and Napoli along the way.
For Fonseca, it was a chance to test himself against two coaches he greatly admires. Asked by UEFA to reveal his biggest coaching influences, Fonseca mentioned both opponents as being examples of the brand of football he appreciates. “I admire every coach that is brave enough to take the initiative and try to dominate and attack. And, of course, there are many, many coaches I admire.
"At this moment, I can highlight Maurizio Sarri and Pep Guardiola as the coaches I admire the most because they are bold, they have their own ideas, they are brave enough to play their own game and attack.
“Now, we can’t forget that José Mourinho has marked a generation of coaches in Portugal and marked Portuguese football. He completely changed the mindset of Portuguese coaches and he’s obviously been a great influence.”
Ambition is possible regardless of oponnent
Fonseca, who has already guided his side to six wins from their opening seven league matches to top the Ukrainian Premier League, will meet Guardiola again in this season’s competition. Shakhtar have been drawn in Group F with Man City, Hoffenheim of the German Bundesliga and France’s Olympique Lyon.
“We didn’t have much luck with the group,” he said. “We all know that Manchester City are clear favourites for first place and then, between us, Lyon and Hoffenheim, it will be a very tough fight.
“We want to show our quality, we want to show the quality of our players. Obviously, we’ve lost some important players, so the team is in a rebuilding process. I would like to at least get through the group stage and try to do better than last season. We know it won’t be easy, but we’ll fight for that goal.
“What matters the most from that learning experience is that mistakes can be costly. You cannot make a mistake in the Champions League, because it may cost you your place. Full focus and full discipline are needed, but I also learned something else: that it is possible, regardless of the team we face, an easier or a stronger one, that it is possible to play, to be ambitious, to value our players through our game.
“For us in Ukraine it is very important to give visibility to our work. It’s important in these Champions League matches to be daring enough to play and show what we’ve been working on, which is possible.”
By Sean Gillen